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Category Archives: Other Art

David Berman of the Silver Jews and Purple Mountains

Am very saddened to learn of the passing of accomplished poet and indie musician David Berman, author of the book Actual Air and frontman of beloved bands Silver Jews and, more recently, Purple Mountains. The latter were slated to tour this year for the first time, on the heels of their critically revered self-titled album that was only released last month on Drag City, the loyal record label Berman called home, even in the literal sense during his final years. A large and readable book could be written about D.B.—on his life, true, but perhaps more importantly, on the unique creative universe he realized through various mediums. To try to sum it all up in a brief eulogy, in the middle of the night, wouldn’t do it justice, especially since I didn’t know him. I will say that I enjoyed the wry, often-imitated poetry of Actual Air and have long been a fan of his music. The Silver Jews full-length The Natural Bridge in particular remains one of my favorite albums of the 1990s—just a nice, concise, sorta laid back late-night indie rock record with light Southern/country music influences. The number of times I’ve sang along to the opening track “How to Rent a Room” must be in the hundreds! And I’ve known plenty of other people who’ve been just as smitten with his songs and their poetic edge, that was no doubt informed by Berman’s huge, discerning appetite for books and his penchant for observing life with a keen eye toward compelling details. Though he was troubled by various things, to me there’s always been a clarity of wit, and oftentimes humor, even during the darkest of times, running through Berman’s work, be it poetry, or songs, or comics he drew. This has made it seem like he was approachable as an artist and that somehow he always had the upper hand. For instance, while his singing voice has always been endearing in my book, not to mention instantly recognizable, Berman once remarked “All my favorite singers can’t sing” in a song, as something of a defensive gesture toward his “critics” or perhaps a commentary against people upholding rigid standards of what constitutes worthwhile art.

I only got to see Silver Jews once, with my good friend Will at the High Noon Saloon in Madison in April of 2006. Berman had a large band behind him, comprised of his wife Cassie on bass, two guitarists (one of them William Tyler), a keyboardist, and a drummer. Being newly assembled, Berman remarked that, in a sense, they were “younger than the Arctic Monkeys,” which of course drew laughs, especially when he started talking in a U.K. accent. And to be honest, some of the older Silver Jews songs did sound a little flat. But when the band played the tracks from their new album Tanglewood Numbers, especially “There is a Place” and “Punks in the Beerlight,” they were a force to be reckoned with, and the room was teeming with life. The records and books will remain, and always draw people in–the new song “Darkness and Cold” alone has been haunting my mind this week, and the rest of Purple Mountains is moving from start to finish. But it’s a major loss. Rest in peace, D.B.

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Today marks the completion of my first proper soul mixtape, which is entitled Intermediate Soul.

It includes a number of different subgenres spanning at least a couple of decades, that all more or less fall under the banner of soul and funk, broad styles of largely African American-oriented music from the latter half of the 20th Century that I’ve been a fan of for long enough now to have accrued many desert island favorites. This is some of my favorite art made by anyone in any medium, in fact.

The tracklist is as follows…

Side A

Harrison – “Uncle Soul”
Dee Irwin – “I Only Get This Feeling”
Ernie K-Doe – “Mother In Law”
Patti Drew – “Tell Him”
Bobby Reed – “The Time Is Right For Love”
Sparkels – “That Boy Of Mine”
Bobby Rich – “There’s A Girl Somewhere (For Me)”
The Precisions – “Such Misery”
Dena Barnes – “If You Ever Walk Out Of My Life”
Mami Lee – “I Can Feel Him Slipping Away”
Tangeers – “Let My Heart And Soul Be Free”
James Brown – “Why Did You Take Your Love Away From Me”
Yvonne Fair – “Say Yeah Yeah”
Wilmer & The Dukes – “Give Me One More Chance”
Edwin Starr – “Running Back And Forth”
Zu Zu Blues Band – “Zu Zu Man”
Jimmy Burns – “I Really Love You”
The Jades – “Lucky Fellow”

Side B

The Hamilton Movement – “She’s Gone”
The Montclairs – “Hung Up On Your Love”
Swiss Movement – “I Wish Our Love Would Last Forever”
Roddie Joy – “Come Back Baby”
The Fabulous Dynamics – “Get Hip To Yourself”
The Esquires – “Get On Up”
Rokk – “Patience”
Pure Essence – “Third Rock”
Brother To Brother – “In The Bottle”
Frazelle – “Today Is The Day”
Lemuria – “Hunk Of Heaven”
Odyssey – “Battend Ships”
Split Decision Band – “My Love Just For You”
Beau Dollar & The Coins – “Soul Serenade”

I call this tape Intermediate Soul because it goes beyond the well treaded stables of Motown and Stax, for instance, but is still comprised of music that isn’t impossible to track down these days. Essentially what we have here is a compilation made from a handful of vintage 45s, several high-quality bootlegs, as well as some reissued cuts (from LPs and CDs), some of which may have at one point been very obscure but are now more widely available. (Several of these tracks were reissued by the likes of Grapevine, Numero Group, Athens of the North, Jazzman, etc.) So while I’m not at all a digger/”tastemaker” type, or a proper DJ bringing “unknown” tracks to light (as would be befit an “expert-level” soul outing, perhaps?), this mixtape still cooks!

Upon finishing it I realized that a bunch of all-time favorites didn’t get included (not enough room, unfortunately), so maybe by the end of the year an Intermediate Soul Vol. II will be in the works.

This tape isn’t available for purchase anywhere, but if you know me, hit me up and we’ll see if we can get you a copy in due time.

This week sees the release of Up at 4 A.M. – The Definitive Version, a revamping of the debut Tired of Triangles album from a few years ago, available now for the first time on CD (as well as 24-bit digital download). All eight songs were remixed, with a few overdubs added or replaced to take advantage of finer software/gear and my ear for putting together better mixes. The album was professionally mastered and I’m now much happier with the recording as a whole and feel great about it being the third release on Kaji-Pup Records. And as you can see the artwork turned out pretty nice, if I may be so immodest.

This is kind of an “insular” and moody album, made for late night listening, so if you want a party record I’m afraid Up at 4 A.M. – The Definitive Version won’t do the trick. But if you’re game for a good solo rock outing that explores a variety of emotions in just under 22 minutes, this is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve had to listen to it a zillion times in preparation for the release, and after all of the trials and tribulations that were endured to bring it to light, I’m still fond of it.

You can stream/purchase Up at 4 A.M. – The Definitive Version on Bandcamp at: https://tiredoftriangles.bandcamp.com/album/up-at-4-a-m-the-definitive-version

Or, if you like, you can listen to it on Spotify HERE.

Agnès Varda

It’s with heavy hearts that film lovers around the world lament the passing of Agnès Varda, a great filmmaker and by nearly all accounts delightful and gentle soul who’s left behind a bold, lively, and endearing body of work. Her 1985 feature Vagabond is one of my ten favorite films—full stop. It’s an uncommonly rich and well directed portrait of a young homeless woman and the people she meets in her final days as she makes her way through a sleepy coastal vacation town at the onset of winter. I’ve seen a lot of movies and narrative cinema doesn’t get much better in my book, but where Varda’s filmography is concerned Vagabond is just the tip of the iceberg. The third chapter of a novel I’m currently writing makes reference to Varda’s underrated effort Kung-Fu Master!, characterizing it as a controversial film that had to be handled with just the right degree of finesse and sensitivity, implying that otherwise the whole thing would’ve fallen apart or seemed like a stunt or mere provocation. This is just one aspect that set Varda apart from the average filmmaker, her ability to navigate her narratives with a gracefulness and fresh vantage point that made her work always feel inviting, regardless of the “difficulty” of a given film’s subject matter. Varda rose to prominence in the mid to late fifties along with a host of other filmmakers related in some way to France’s Nouvelle Vague, but in contrast to her more “prickly” still-living contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, she was very sociable for someone of her stature, even in her final years, where she found acceptance among Hollywood movie stars and mainstream directors, among others. I could go on about what a loss her passing is for cinema, but really Varda’s contribution to film (whether as a feminist, an “art house” giant, or a writer-director period) is such a wonderful thing that I think it’s best to instead celebrate her life and the singular path she took. She was a visionary no doubt, a courageous artist. Rest in peace, Agnès.

Agnès Varda

Susan Andrae on Antiques Roadshow, Season 23, Episode 5

Susan Andrae on Antiques Roadshow, Season 23, Episode 5

My mom, Susan, a swell person (who incidentally has funded several of my low-budget art projects), was featured on Season 23, Episode 5 of Antiques Roadshow on PBS yesterday. She shared an intriguing archive of more than two dozen early-20th-century newspaper illustrations with collectibles appraiser Philip Weiss.

To quote the PBS site:

Done in gouache, many of the camera-ready illustrations were published around 1915 — in the early days of aviation — as part of a publication entitled “How Man Learned to Fly.” They depict assorted visions — fanciful, ambitious, hazardous, or tragic — of human air travel in all its imagined possibilities, from wearable parachute-like wings, to a flying steam-powered bus. […] Almost every picture vividly captures some concept of the future, but as conceived in the past, to our modern eye. As such, Weiss notes, the images hold a strong appeal both for aviation collectors and science-fiction enthusiasts alike.

These prints, which my mom inherited from my grandpa, remind me a bit of a famous Czech adventure film, Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction, which I saw not too long ago and would recommend for its creative production values alone!

Anyway, hats off to my mom for getting on TV. This episode of Antiques Roadshow is now available for streaming on the PBS Roku channel.

Pete Shelley of the U.K. punk band Buzzcocks has passed away. In my book Buzzcocks remain one of the most engaging of the original crop of punk bands who took the 1970s by storm. That run of recordings from Spiral Scratch to A Different Kind of Tension has aged better than just about any other rock music from that era (or any other) that I’ve managed to hear. It’s still some of the music I reach for most these days, having liked it since high school when I first overheard my older sibling playing Operator’s Manual in his room and then had to get some of their recordings myself. The early Buzzcocks should be lauded for their unstoppable rhythm section — John Maher is one of the grooviest rock drummers ever, and those catchy basslines are a joy to hear. But it’s Pete Shelley’s soaring vocals and the charging dual-guitar attack of him and Steve Diggle that seal the deal, making that spate of early recordings (as well as many beyond them) a treasure trove of hooks and riffs and enticing vibes worth returning to again and again. More could be said, but ultimately words fail, and one should just put the records on and lose herself in them. Shelley was musically active for several decades, in Buzzcocks as well as a solo artist and collaborator. He’s gone but has left behind quite a legacy and influence. R.I.P., Pete.

Recently I had the good fortune to see Esther Hoffenberg’s Bernadette Lafont, and God Created the Free Woman and I must say, it was tres fantastique! It should be noted that being a fan of Bernadette Lafont both during and after her lifetime, and having enjoyed many of the films she had roles in, I was predisposed to like this 65-minute documentary. But to be in the target market for a film hasn’t always meant I’ve taken a shine to it—in other words, there’s never been a guarantee that just because the subject matter is of interest a movie is handled well. However Hoffenberg did such a fine job weaving together so many different moments from the late French actor’s life and career that her film grabbed me from the start and by time it was over I was left with a sense of peace and was utterly charmed. As one of Lafont’s granddaughters said toward the end of the film, “She’s gone but for us she’s still here.” That’s how Hoffenberg’s documentary made me feel, without it ever coming across as hagiography.

Bernadette Lafont, and God Created the Free Woman traced the actor’s evolution from pin-up girl, to Nouvelle Vague (and post-Nouvelle Vague) model of feminist liberation, to mother and wife (as well as provider), to septuagenarian actor who found a late-period break-out hit as a drug dealing grandmother in the comedy Paulette. Along the way, the constellation of filmmakers she worked with was like a Who’s Who’s of French Cinema, featuring such luminaries as Jean Eustache, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Philippe Garrel, Anne-Marie Miéville, and on and on. An interesting moment for me was seeing Lafont passionately defend Eustache’s masterpiece The Mother and the Whore before an unsympathetic critic at Cannes who foolishly described it as a “non-film” (Mon dieu!). Other stand-outs were the interviews with Moshe Mizrahi and Christiane Rochefort talking about some of the finer anti-patriarchal aspects of Sophie’s Ways, a film I enjoyed just the other day.

Hoffenberg’s documentary featured many snippets of archived interviews with and movie clips and photographs of Lafont dating back to the fifties, as well as a more recent voice-over from Lafont that was occasionally tempered by a voice-over from Hoffenberg herself. Recent interviews with Lafont’s granddaughters and close friend and collaborator Bulle Ogier, among others, helped paint a more nuanced picture of Lafon’t life and career, which truth be told had its ups and downs. A pleasant surprise was the documentary’s transitional music, by Dario Rudy, which was first rate and very cool. Ultimately Bernadette Lafont, and God Created the Free Woman was a life affirming film about a figure on the cinematic landscape who forged a singular path. And like Bertrand Tavernier’s excellent My Journey Through French Cinema, it should be considered a must for those interested in francophone films and would likely inspire its viewers to seek out some of the more obscure titles covered within it.

The Breeders rocking out at the Ritz Ybor in Tampa Bay

Last night the classic Last Splash-era line-up of The Breeders played The Ritz Ybor in Tampa Bay, and it was one helluva show! The band were in fine form as they played material old and new in the midst of moody lighting and an alluring visual backdrop that didn’t stay still for long. I’m exhausted at the moment, so suffice it to say, if you have the chance to see The Breeders as they tour the U.S. and elsewhere on the heels of their cool new album All Nerve, run don’t walk to see them. I’m grateful they made a stop down here and the rest of the packed audience last night ate it up too.

Will Vinton

A quick shout out and “requiescat in pace” are due for animator Will Vinton, who passed away yesterday. Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration was a staple of my childhood in the 1980s and I still make a point of watching it on DVD every year during the holidays. Like Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed or the Brothers Quay’s Street of Crocodiles, it is a venerated slice of animation that has achieved “classic” status at this point, and for good reason. Even thirty years on, people take stock of how inviting and visually engrossing it is. Will Vinton was talented, and duly celebrated during his time, and even if you don’t think you know him, you probably do know him, as you’ve likely at the very least seen his work in commercials and in pop culture at large. He will be missed.

Urban Arts Berlin's Ballardian Soundscapes compilation

The German organization Urban Arts Berlin has released another one of its nifty compilations of music by artists from all around the world. This one is called Ballardian Soundscapes and as you would surmise it consists of music inspired by the work of the late novelist and A-level provocateur J.G. Ballard.

Am pleased to report that Leila M. & Tired of Triangles’ “The Drowned World” made the cut! You can stream and download this and other tracks via Bandcamp at: https://urbanartsberlin.bandcamp.com/album/ballardian-soundscapes

This is a cool compilation. A lot of the tracks seem to embody a darker, dystopian, electronic-based sound that fits right in with new brutalism architecture and some of Ballard’s more unnerving storylines. A few of the tracks feel reminiscent of Zoviet France. One of the tracks, Russell Lowe’s “Depopulous Nirvana,” feels like a perfect mix between Sunn O))) and Oneohtrix Point Never. I look forward to listening to this more in the coming days while reading and whatnot.

Leila and I are honored to have been included.